WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com)–In the midst of overwhelming opposition, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 for “radical deregulation” of media ownership rules that previously limited the size and power of media companies.
The new rules, voted on June 2 along party lines, allow, for the first time, a newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule, which permits a company to own a newspaper and a TV station in the same market, as well as significantly increasing the number of TV stations one company can own.
“We’ve wrote rules that match the times,” said FCC Chair Micheal Powell before a crowded commission hearing. “The values these rules advance are critical to a vibrant democracy. Keeping the rules as they are is not a viable option.”
Every two years, the FCC is mandated by Congress to justify their rules in regard to diversity, localism and competition. This year the commission felt that the previous rules were not applicable in this new day of technology.
“The current rules reflect a by-gone era,” said Kenneth Ferree, FCC media bureau chief. “They utterly fail to serve the interests they were designed to.”
The FCC claims the current rules reflect a time when a limited number of people had black-and-white TVs, access to only three major networks and a few independent or public television stations.
The black-and-white era has evolved into a time where 89 million households have color TVs, cable, satellite and the Internet. Now, about 83 percent of households have televisions.
Major broadcast networks complain that they need to compete with cable networks for greater profits. To do this, they need to own more of the money-making affiliates that carry their programming.
“This decision empowers America’s new media elite,” said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps during the hearing. “The citizens are almost unanimously opposed to these regulations. They are screaming for us to protest their local interests.”
“More channels are great, but not when they are owned by the same company,” he argued.
Critics of the FCC claim the new rules would limit diversity and reduce the voices to which people are exposed in the delivery of the news.
The FCC rule changes have the potential to affect thousands of jobs, including many held by journalists of color, as well as how news and information is reported to millions of American viewers, listeners and readers, as the news media outlets are consolidated into fewer and more concentrated entities in local markets.
“Relaxation of the rules do not benefit the cause of newsroom diversity. However, if the FCC is determined to make the change, the NABJ feels strongly about working with the commission to assure, as best we can, that newsroom diversity does not suffer,” said Condace Pressley, president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ).
“A dark cloud looms over America,” said Jonathan Adelstein, the other dissenting FCC commissioner. “This is a massive weakening of media ownership rules. Today’s rules don’t just let the big get bigger, they don’t let the small get started at all.”
Media mogul Ted Turner wrote May 30 in a Washington Post op-ed that the new rules would “extend the market dominance of the five media corporations that control most of what Americans read, see and hear.”
“I am a major shareholder in the largest of those five corporations, yet–speaking only for myself and not for AOL Time Warner–I oppose these rules. They will stifle debate, inhibit new ideas and shut out smaller businesses trying to compete. If these rules had been in place in 1970, it would have been virtually impossible for me to start Turner Broadcasting or, 10 years later, to launch CNN.”
The new rules permit a sole company to now own TV stations that reach 45 percent of U.S. households instead of 35 percent. This change was a compromise, because major networks wanted the limit removed. Smaller owners complained that a higher limit would allow the networks to acquire stations, therefore reducing local control of programming.
“The FCC’s rule changes will do for television what they did for radio–set off a wave of ownership consolidation that will eventually mean fewer distinct voices in the industry and a further loss of localism,” said Hub Brown, associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications.
“The commissioners who want the change say it’s necessary to keep over-the-air broadcasting competitive, but since when was that the job of the FCC? What’s missing in the discussion is the responsibility of the FCC to make sure the public hears more distinct voices over the air, not fewer,” he said.
The new rules also allow for joint ownership of a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same city. It removes all “cross-ownership” restrictions in markets with nine or more TV stations. Smaller markets would face some limits, and cross-ownership would be banned in markets with three or fewer TV stations.
“Curtailment of media cross-ownership restrictions by the FCC presents a grave danger to competition within the mass media and, moreover, dire consequences for American society similar to the effects on radio from ownership consolidation spurred by the Telecommunications Act of 1996,” said Michael Saffran, senior news specialist at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
“In radio, a handful of conglomerates–comprising a nation-wide oligopoly–dominate audience share and advertising revenue in many U.S. cities, despite program fare that’s increasingly automated and non-local. Due to consolidation sparked by the telecom bill, which placed no limit on national radio station ownership, today there are about one-third–or more than 1,000–fewer radio station owners in America than in 1996,” he added.
The new rules also relaxed how many stations can be owned. Now, one company can own two television stations in more markets and three stations in the major markets, such as New York and Los Angeles.
“We are damaging the media landscape,” said Mr. Adelstein. “We’ve received three quarters of a million comments in opposition to these regulations and only a handful in support of them. The public has no interest in further media consolidation.”
These rules partnered unlikely foes together. The opposition included the likes of the National Rifle Association and the National Organization for Women, as well as artists, academics and media giants. It had bi-partisan opposition from Congress.
“This is a terrible idea. I’ve never seen a regulatory commission cave in to the industry so quickly,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND). “It’s the big enterprises that support this. It runs against the public interest. They talk about diversity, but the FCC is moving in the wrong direction.”
Mr. Powell is confident that these regulations will stand up in court, and dismisses the concern of his opponents.
“I think you’ll see some re-structuring, but I happen to personally believe not nearly as much as some of the alarmist rhetoric would suggest,” Mr. Powell said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Just because somebody can buy something, doesn’t mean it makes strategic or financial sense to do so.”
Commissioner Aldestein assured the audience at the hearing that this wasn’t over.
“Congress may prove to be more responsive to the public,” he said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Az.), the chairman of the Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC, plans to question the FCC on their rules changes.
With protesters outside and inside the meeting, Chairman Powell called for the vote. As soon as he read the passing of the rules, those inside started chanting: “Mass deregulation of the mass communication is the end of democracy! Mass deregulation of the mass communication is the end of democracy!”
They were immediately removed from the room.